We present a brief article on the etymology of the term: ‘Perspective’.

This unsigned article was discovered amongst the papers and library of Kim Veltman in 2020; and we are unsure of authorship. It may have been authored by Kim, or it may not have been. The only evidence is that the top corner of each page had the name Ruby printed in the same typeface.

Evidently the paper is quite old, which we can guess from the fact that it is type-written and printed on an older kind of paper; therefore perhaps it is dated from the 1960s – 1970s. We have decided to publish this article here because we consider that the discussion it contains provides a vitally important contribution to the etymology and history of optics/perspective.

History of the Term “Perspective”

In 1953, in his Early Netherlandish Painting, Erwin Panofsky wrote: 

Perspectiva,’ says Durer, ‘is a Latin word and  means a “Durchsehunq” (a view through something).’ As coined  by Boethius and used by all writers prior to the fifteenth century, the word perspectiva refers to perspicere in the sense of ‘seeing clearly,’ and not in the sense of ‘seeing through;’ a direct translation of the Greek οπτική, it designates a mathematical theory of vision and not a mathematical method of graphic representation.

Durer’s definition, on the other hand, gives an excellent and brief description of ‘perspective‘ as understood in post-medieval usage including our own.” 

Erwin Panofsky (1953)

Although perspectiva is indeed a direct translation of οπτική – the Greek “optics” – it is not a literal one, there being nothing in οπτική corresponding to the per of perspectiva, a prefix originally meaning “through.”

Panofsky’s interpretation evidently depended on his belief that Boethius coined the term, for to Boethius (480-525) and others in the early centuries of the Christian era perspicere did have the meaning of “seeing clearly” – only, however, in the figurative sense of “understanding.” The passage in Early Netherlandish Painting, is undocumented, but many years earlier, in the ’20’s, in “Die Perspektive als ‘Symbolische Form,'” Panofsky cited what he thought was Boethius’s translation of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. At the time he said only that the term “seems originally not to have had so precise (‘pragnant’) a meaning” as Durer gave it. 

He was mistaken in thinking the translation to be by Boethius. As Minio-Paluello was to show in 1968, the attribution is an error dating back to the Renaissance, the translation in fact having been made by James “the Greek” of Venice, probably between 1125 and 1150. Panofsky was, I think, mistaken also in his second reading of the medieval “perspectiva.” Not only is it unlikely that a literal use of a term would be derived from a figurative one, but not once did medieval writers on optics, concerned, like those of other times, with flawed and obscured as well as clear vision, associate the term with “seeing clearly” rather than vision in general.

Did the pre-fifteenth-century perspectiva, then, refer to perspicere in the sense of “seeing through”? Considering the content of medieval optical works, one might think so. In the Latin West, beginning with Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), the first to write an original work in optics-as distinguished from a commentary, theories of vision were not simply mathematical, but, under the influence first of Aristotle and Avicenna and very shortly of Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham, c. 965-1039), physical as well.

Although the theories differed in some respects, they all entailed the idea of a transparent corporeal medium between the object seen and the viewer, a medium generally called either diaphanum, a transliteration of Aristotle’s word for “transparency,” or perspicuum, a Latin equivalent, unmistakably derived from perspicere in the sense of “seeing through,” In the purely mathematical theories of Euclid and of the ninth century Alkindi, there is nothing whatever about transparency, and in Ptolemy’s Optics one finds only the adjective perspectabilis, used once, and then not of the medium but of the eye.   

In contrast, in Grosseteste’s brief De Iride (On the Rainbow) and even briefer De Colore (On Color), both written around 1234-6 1235, diaphanum is used twenty-five times, perspicuum eleven. The optical works of Roger Bacon (ca.1210-ca.1292), John Pecham  (ca.1240-1292), and Witelo (born ca.1220) drew heavily on Alhazen’s Kitab al-Manazir, where terms for “transparency” and “transparent” occur close to four hundred times. Although in the Latin translation one finds only diaphanum and diaphanus, Bacon and Pecham, like Grosseteste, used the Latin and the transliterated Greek interchangeably.

Yet, one does not find the writers on optics linking perspectiva with perspicere in the sense of “seeing through” any more than in that of “seeing clearly.” One might expect to find the association at least in definitions of perspectiva; but in Grosseteste’s, to my knowledge the only one in the thirteenth century except for a partial echo in Pecham, there is no reference to the transparent medium. “Perspective,” he says:

“is the science based on visual shapes, and subordinate to this is the science-based on shapes which radiant lines and surfaces bound, whether that radiation is from the sun, or the stars, or some other radiant body.”

Grosseteste (1234-6)

In sum, to thirteenth-century writers on optics the per of perspectiva meant neither “clearly” nor “through.” What, then, accounts for it?

When one goes back to twelfth-century translations of the Prior Analytics one discovers that perspectiva was but one of three words coined in the search for a satisfactory rendering, of οπτική. In his translation of the work from the Arabic, Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187) was content with a phrase, scientia aspectuum or de aspectibus, aspectus being a classical noun derived from aspicere, “to look at,” and meaning “sight” or “appearance.” The phrase was also Gundisalvi’s (fl. 1140) designation for optics when he introduced the discipline into the Western classification of the sciences.

Evidently, however, James of Venice was seeking – groping for – a single word to match the Greek. In rendering the οπτική’s of the Posterior Analytics, he uses perspectiva only twice. Despite saying in the case of the first use, οπτική, id est perspectiva,” for the other four he uses speculativa, coined from speculor, which meant “to spy out,” “watch for,” or “observe.” As to his choice for the single οπτική(os) (worker in optics), the manuscripts vary, some reading perspectivus, others speculativus. Only in William of Morbeke’s version of the work, probably a revision of James’s, in the second half of the thirteenth century, does one find perspectiva used consistently, together with perspectivus.

Not only did James vacillate; between 1125 and 1160 someone known only as Johannes (John), revising James’s translation, replaced both perspectiva and speculativa with inspectiva, which he coined from inspicere, “to look into,” “examine,” or “inspect.” Why James chose perspectiva and speculativa and John jettisoned both one cannot say. However, James’s wavering and John’s rejection of perspectiva make it evident that the per had as little significance when the term was coined as it had in the thirteenth century.

How, then, did it happen that in the 1260’s perspectiva, displacing: the other terms, became the usual designation for optics? The odds would seem against it.

To be sure, inspectiva clearly had little chance, there being hundreds of surviving manuscripts of James’s translation and only two of John’s revision; and speculativa one could expect to give way in the minds of James’s readers to his emphatic “οπτική id est perspectiva.” De aspectibus, however, would seem another matter. True, there are only nine surviving manuscripts of Gerard’s translation; but not only was de aspectibus also Gundisalvi’s rendering of οπτική but the phrase was widely used in the thirteenth century for the Greek and Arabic works on which the West drew – always for Al-kindi’s and sometimes for Tideus’s, both of which Gerard translated, sometimes for Euclid’s, which he may have translated, also for Ptolemy’s, translated by Eugene of Sicily, and more often than not for Alhazen’s.

The explanation for the victory of perspectiva is to be found in its adoption by two of the most influential thirteenth-century writers on optics, Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, Grosseteste taking: the term from James and Bacon in turn from Grosseteste, indirectly and directly. Although in his commentary on the Posterior Analytics Grosseteste follows James in using both speculativa and perspectiva, in the De Iride and the De Colore he uses only perspectiva, along with perspectivus and its plural perspectivi.           

Bartholomaeus Anglicus (fl. ca. 1250) borrowed perspectiva from him, using it three times in his popular encyclopedia, the De Propretatibus rerum – not, however, for the science, but only for Alhazen’s Kitab al-Manazir. Evidently not knowing the name of the author, he refers either to “the author of the Perspectiva” or simply to “the Perspectiva.” Albertus Magnus, writing in the ’40’s and ’50’s, also drawing on Grosseteste, and probably on Bartholomaeus, too, speaks of Alhazen once as “the author of the Perspectiva” although he knew his name, calls Algazel’s and Euclid’s optical works also “Perspectiva,” writes repeatedly of perspectivi and once of geometrias perspectivas (optical geometries), and calls optics scientia perspectivorum” as well as Scientia de aspectibus. However, although he may have contributed to Bacon’s use of perspectiva, his direct influence on the future of optics and the optical vocabulary was relatively slight.

In his commentary on Aristotle’s De Sensu et sensibile, probably written during his Paris stay in the 1240’s, and in his De Multiplicatione specierum, of the late ’50’s or early ’60’s, a work dealing with the general principles of physical action, Bacon uses perspectiva only as Bartholomaeus does. 

At the time of the commentary, in the optical portions of which he draws almost exclusively on Alhazen, he was in all likelihood familiar with the De proprietatibus rerum but not yet with Grosseteste’s writings. He calls the Kitab al-Manazir “Perspectiva,” without naming Alhazen, more than forty times, Although he almost certainly knew the De Iride by the time he wrote the De Multiplicatione, he still uses perspectiva only for Alhazen’s treatise, now, though, naming him. However, drawing here for the first time on the works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Tideus, and Alkindi, he  calls Alhazen’s, along with theirs, “De Aspectibus” most of the time and refers to writers on optics collectively as “auctores; de aspectibus or aspectuum.) 

In the Perspectiva of ca. 1263, which deals solely with optics and is, accordingly, closely related in subject to the opening sections of the De Iride, the auctores become auctores perspectivae, or else perspectivi; and the science, not clearly referred to as such in the De Multiplicatione, is either perspectiva or scientia perspectivae. Apart from use for the works of Alkindi and Tidaus, de aspectibus occurs only twice, both times in a triple phrase implicitly equating it with perspectiva and optica.

Although Grosseteste’s influence would seem, possibly along with that of Albertus Magnus, a factor in the change, one suspects that also accountable is the emergence in Bacon’s thought of Alhazen, with whom he had long distinctively associated the term, as the preeminent authority in optics. Not only does he express his admiration for Alhazen’s work in the De Multiplicatione specierum, but in the Perspectiva he bases his own closely on it. There the distinctive association persists. Although he also calls Ptolemy’s treatise, which in his view ran Alhazen’s a close second, “Perspectiva” rather than “Optica” most of the time, Alhazen’s he calls that consistently, except in one of the tripling phrases; and several times he refers to Alhazen, as in the early commentary, simply as “auctor Perspectivae.

John Pecham followed suit in his work that was to be known in the fourteenth century as the Perspectiva communis, calling the science “perspectiva” and speaking of Alhazen’s work simply  as “the Perspectiva” and of Alhazen as “auctor Perspectivae” or even simply as “auctor;” and Witelo wrote in the dedication of his widely used treatise on optics that those who preceded him in the science were called “Perspectivi.” Since, to cite David Lindberg, Bacon, together with Pecham and Witelo, “initiated a Western optical tradition that faithfully transmitted the essence of Alhazen’s achievement in optics to Kepler and his seventeenth-century contemporaries,” it was appropriate that the term long associated especially with Alhazen should become the designation for optics for the next several centuries.

If, however, the essence of Alhazen’s achievement was carried into the seventeenth century, the term itself was not. In 1572, the year after Kepler was born, Friedrich Risner, publishing the Latin translation of the Kitab al-Manazir, called it, perhaps because the term had been taken over by artists, perhaps because of the Renaissance revival of Greek in the West, Opticae thesaurus (Treasury of Optics). Optics was again “optics.” In the meanwhile, Renaissance artists had encountered perspectiva in works by Bacon, Pecham, Witelo and others.

So far as I have discovered, Ghiberti, whose “Third Commentary” draws heavily on medieval optical works, was the first to use the term in the artistic sense. There is no perspectiva in Alberti’s description, in his De Pictura of 1435, of the principle of linear perspective in terms of a cross-section through the visual pyramid serving “as an open window through which the subject Painted is seen.” He called optical theorists either “mathematicians” or “philosophers” and asked that the painter have “above all a good knowledge of geometry”.

Around 1458, writing of Brunelleschi, Giovanni Rucellai still used geometra. The first to associate “perspective” directly with Brunelleschi would seem to have been Filarete, in the early ’60’s. In the mean while, however, Ghiberti not only asked that the painter know perspective as well as geometry, but used prospettiva of graphic representation.

Both the phrasing of the passage in which the use occurs and the fact that Ghiberti used prospettiva, together with prospettivi of optics and optical theorists over a score of times in the “Commentaries” and only once for artistic representation, suggest that the moment of transition lay with him. “Apelles,” he writes: 

“having gone to the house of Protogenes in Rhodes and finding a panel prepared and wishing to show the nobility of the art of painting and how excellent he was in it, seized a brush and finished it with the perspective belonging to the art of painting (compuose una conclusione in prospettiva appartenente all’arte della pictura).”

Lorenzo Ghiberti – excerpt from his third commentary (1447-1455)

Whatever the precise steps in the establishment of the use, by the ’80’s Antonio di Tuccio Manetti could write that Brunelleschi had developed “che dipintorii oggi dicono prospettiva (what painters today call ‘perspective‘).”

Thus, construing literally a prefix that was arbitrary and meaningless when perspectiva was coined, the artists of the Renaissance indeed found a term describing excellently and briefly their novel method of graphic representation.


  1. Early Netherlandish Painting, its Origins and Character, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), Vol. I, p. 3.
  2. For Boethius’s use of perspectus, perspectuus, and perspecue, see the De Trinitate and the Philosophiae consolationis (The Theological Tractates . . . Cambridge, Mass.,1973, pp. 24 198, 230, 268, 318, 326, 330, 346). Cf. also Lactantius, Institutiones Divines (Paris, 1973), Vol. I, pp. 214 and 248.
  3. Vortragce der Bibliothek Warburg., IV (Leipzig, etc., 1924-25), p. 1.
  4. Aristoteles Latinus, IV 1, ed. L. Minio-Paluello and B. G. Dod (Bruges-Paris, 1968), xii-xix.
  5. Euclides optica opticorum recensio Theonis, ed. I. L. Heiber (Leipzig, 1895). Alkindi, ed. A. A. Bjornbo and Ceb. Vogl, “Drei optische Werke,” Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der Mathematischen Wissenschafte, 26.3 (1912), pp. 3-41. L’Optique de Claude Ptolemle dans la version d’apres l’emir de Euqene de Sicile, ed. Albert Lejeune (Louvain, 1926), II 35(p. 23).
  6. Die philosophische Werke des Robert Grosseteste, ed. Ludwig: Baur, Beitraze zur Geschichte der Philosolohie des Mittelalters (henceforth BGPM) , IX (Munster, 1912), pp. 72-79. On the date, see R. C. Dales, “Robert Grosseteste’s scientific Works,” Isis, 52 (1961), 399.
  7. Opticae thesaurus Alhazen Arabis, ed. F. Risner (Base 1, 1572).
  8. In the De Multiplicatione specierum Bacon misconstrues the prefix dia as 7eaninz “two,” but in the same passage he says that diaphanum and diaphonum perspicuus together with several other terms and phrases “all mean the same thing, differing only according to certain considerations” (David C. Lindberg, Riper :- Roger Bacon’s Philosophy of Nature: A Critical Edition_ . . . of De Multiplicatione specierum . Oxford, 1983, p. 460.
  9. Die Philosophische Werke,  72.
  10. Ed. Minio-Paluello, Aristoteles Latinus, IV 3, pp. 203, line 21; 205, 1.22; 210, 11.3, 10; 214, 11.16, 19. The definitions in this paragraph and the next are based on the Oxford  Latin Dictionary (Oxford, 1982).
  11. De Divisione philosophiae, ed. Ludwig Baur, BGPM., IV, (Munster, 1903), 2-3.
  12. Ed. Minio-Paluello, Aristoteles Latinus, IV 1, r. 20, 1.13; p. 32, 1.21.
  13. Loc. cit.: the identification, p. 20, 1.13; speculativa, pp. 22, 1.24; 27, 1.13; 31, 1.23; 32, 1.12.
  14. Loc. cit., p. 32, 1.14.
  15. Ed. B. G. Dod, Aristoteles Latinus, IV 4, pp. 294, 1.4; 295, 1.13; 297, 1.31; 300, 11.16-17, 28, 30. On whether it is a revision, see IV 1, lxxvii-lxxxi.
  16. Ed. Minio-Paluello, Aristoteles Latinus, IV 2; pp. 122, 1.28; 124, 1.14; 127, 1.20; 130, 11.3, 15-16, 23. On the date see IV 1, xlvi.
  17. On the manuscripts, Aristoteles Latinus I 1, pp. xx-xxxii and xlviii.
  18. 18. On the manuscripts of Gerard’s translation, loc. cit., p. lxvi. On the designations and translators of the various works, see David C. Lindberg, Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Optical Manuscripts (Toronto, 1975), pp. 17, 21, 46, 74, 76.
  19. In Aristotelis Posteriorum Analyticorum Libros (Venice, 1514, repr. Frankfurt/Main, 1966): perspectiva, pp. Sr, 91; and 141 speculativa, p. 14v (bis). (71.b.: the terms in this text of James’s translation do not always correspond to those in the Aristoteles less Latinus edition.) De Iride and De Colore, Die Philosophische Werke: perspectiva, pp. 72, 73, 74, 75, 79;  perspectivus, D. 75; perspectivi, p. 72 (ter).
  20. On the time of composition, see David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (Chicago and London, 1976), p. 105. On Bartholomaeus knowing- works of Grosseteste, Lindberg, op. cit., p. 252, n. 12 and A. C. Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100-1700 (Oxford, 1953), p. 138.
  21. De Meteoris, Opera omnia, ed. August BoreTnet (Paris, 1890- 99), Vol. IV, pp. 670, 671, 673, 682, 696; De Anima, ed. cit., Vol. V, pp. 262, 263; De Fensu et sensato, Vol. IX, pp. 8, 19, 24, 27, 34; De Animalibus, Vol. XI, p. 51. ‘Quaestio de animal- ibus, Opera amnia (Monasteriam Westfalorum, 1951- ), Vol. XII, D. 98. On the dating: of the works, see Lindberg, Theories of Vision, p. 105; on Albertus’s familiarity with Gressetestess works, Lindberg, op. cit., p, 252, n. 12 and Crombie, Grosseteste, p. 190.
  22. On the possibility that Bacon was influenced by Albertus, see Lindberg, op. cit., D. 109.
  23. De Sensu et sensato, Opera hactenus inedita, ed. Robert Steele (London, L905-40), VoL. XIV. On the time of composition of the De Fensu, see Stewart Easton, Roger Bacon and his search for a universal ‘c fence (New York, 1952), pp. 234-35; 6n that of the De Multiplicatione, Lindberg’s edition (cf. note 8 above),pp. xxxii-xxxvi.



Unknown author (unknown date)
Alan Stuart Radley (2023)


See list above.

Copyright © 2020-23 Alan Stuart Radley.
All rights are reserved.